That day was a couple of years ago in the art student friendly Cup-A-Joe coffee shop across the street from my TenderNob apartment. The mural depicted an intriguing armed man in uniform with the words “Nob Hill” written on his helmet. A few days later I encountered the guy again in another restroom, this time at Cafe Royale just a block away. And then on the wall of a corner store in the Tenderloin. All of a sudden I couldn't escape the Nob Hill militiaman, and had no idea who was
responsible for him.
I finally discovered the source of those murals a few months later when I met a group of street artists working on a large piece at 606 Ellis. The gang was comprised of Eddie Colla, Hugh Leeman, and D Young V.
It turned out D Young V was the man behind the Nob Hill soldier, just one of many characters in the artist’s fascinating postapocalyptic world. I've been following his work since, and have even become a groupie of sorts. If you live in San Francisco you've most likely seen his work on the streets of our city, pieces such as the mysterious woman known as the “nun of war.”
After encountering D Young V in the neighborhood a number of times, he invited me to visit his small Tenderloin studio. From the moment I walked in the door, I saw canvases covering the walls from floor to ceiling. His table was full of micron pens and ink, and a large drawing he was working on was pinned on the main wall. The kitchen cabinets were full of drawings instead of pots and pans.
I learned that his actual name is David Young, the fifth in a long family line from New Jersey. He moved to San Francisco almost a decade ago lured by the appeal of the California dream and the desire to attend art school. Over the years he has lived in many apartments, often in the TenderNob/Tenderloin area, which explains why I kept seeing his artwork in the neighborhood. When I asked him about the inspiration for his work, he explained that in one way or another he’s always been influenced by comic books, fantasy, punk rock, and sci-fi.
He became interested in street art a few years ago through revolutionary aesthetics, namely the Cuban revolution and guerrilla men in uniform posing proudly with guns. In those days he would hang out in the now-defunct Babylon Falling bookstore, and became attracted to the revolutionary art the owner showed him.
David was wearing his distinctive uniform – military pants, a worn-out hoodie, a second-hand USPS cap, and a back-slung poster tube. While he hand-painted some unintelligible text on a canvas, he told me his works depict an imaginary alternate version of San Francisco after the socioeconomic collapse of the world financial system and the deterioration of what we have known as the American way of life. Civil unrest and widespread factionalism would result in a prolonged and unsuccessful military occupation of the Bay Area.
The characters in his art are based on this loose narrative of a world attempting to rebuild itself after it falls apart for reasons unknown. I asked him about the cool typography in most of his pieces, and he explained that since much of the history, language, and religion in his fictional world were destroyed, and people were left with no cultural roots, they had to create new ones. They are discovering things for the first time, through a new language based on fragments of the old world after generations
Knowing that I was a fan of his work and how close I live to Cup-A-Joe, David alerted me to a new large piece he was about to start. It would cover the whole wall of the coffee shop and parts of the ceiling. Over the course of several weeks I watched David working tirelessly on the piece from my apartment, and a few times I came downstairs to chat and check out
The centerpiece in one of the two walls at Cup-A-Joe is a triangle with a large letter N inside. David explained that the letter N is often associated with nihilism, nationalism, and squatting, and has a long history in punk rock culture. For him it stands for “neutrality,” and the characters associated with this movement wear it on an armband – a style very much associated with World War II European fascism.
David said he sees “The Neutrality” as both a conflict intervention armed force, and as an expanding empire. Out of all the forces in this world, it is one of the largest and most technologically advanced, and its purpose is to unify the majority of existing tribes, armies, and groups. The movement’s goal is to build a new society and pull humankind out of a dark age.
The last time I saw David working at Cup-A-Joe the mural was almost finished. He was running behind schedule because he had just spent a week at Art Basel in Miami, but he said he'd come back transformed and full of energy. He was excited to tell me about another important group in his imaginary world: the Armed Courier Services (ACS).
This group is independent of The Neutrality and their allegiance is only to themselves. Transporters of information, packages, and people, they are a blend of a bike courier, postman (I’m assuming not the Kevin Costner type), and mercenary all in one. They have complete freedom to move within any territory without harm since the information they carry is valuable. One such character is the Nob Hill militiaman I keep encountering around my neighborhood.
David is making up the rules and events of this world as he goes. His general goal is to provoke people to rethink their freedoms, luxuries, and identities both as Americans and moral beings. He'd like us to question what we might do if we were part of a once-strong nation that had since fallen apart. I’ve thought about that question a lot since meeting David. What I would do if our world ended I have no idea, but hopefully I'd be part of the Neutrality, trying to make a difference.
You can spot several of D Young V's murals in bars and cafés around the TenderNob and Tenderloin, sometimes even in the streets of the neighborhood. For example, Cup-A-Joe Coffeehouse, Cafe Royale, the bar at Space Gallery, Amsterdam Cafe, and Jasper's Corner Tap & Kitchen. And you can stay updated on his shows and events via his website and Facebook page.